The Marksman, 2020.
Directed by Robert Lorenz.
Starring Liam Neeson, Katheryn Winnick, Juan Pablo Raba, and Teresa Ruiz.
A rancher on the Arizona border becomes the unlikely defender of a young Mexican boy desperately fleeing the cartel assassins who’ve pursued him into the U.S.
It didn’t take Liam Neeson long to backpedal on his 2017 claim that he was “retired” from action films, and while his most recent release Honest Thief double-underlined the more absurd reality of a 68-year-old Neeson punching men half his age, The Marksman proves that the actor’s age need not work against him when the material is a little more pragmatic.
To be clear, this western-tinged action thriller is no great work of cinema, but it spins enough watchability out of its No Country for Old Men-lite – or perhaps Logan-lite? – presentation that audiences may find themselves able to easier weather the wheelbarrow full of cliches the script dumps at their feet.
Jim Hanson (Neeson) is a bereaved, impoverished rancher living a modest life on the Arizona-Mexico border, when one day he stumbles across a mother, Rosa (Teresa Ruiz), and her 11-year-old son, Miguel (Jacob Perez), illegally crossing into the U.S. while fleeing the cartel pursuing them on the other side.
A scuffle on the border leaves Rosa dead and Jim fleeing the scene with Miguel in tow, and as the cartel heavies enter the U.S. to finish the job, Jim finds himself struggling to protect young Miguel – and stay alive himself.
Easy though it might be to roll one’s eyes at yet another Liam Neeson action thriller where he plays a downtrodden gunslinger with a heart of gold, there is something to be said for a film that knows what it is, accepts its dramatic limitations, and just has at it.
The slightly more adventurous setting and style certainly help, too. In some respects The Marksman is what many likely hoped Rambo: Last Blood would be; an old-fashioned action-western where the grizzled veteran protects the innocent party from the big, bad cartel. It is a shame, however, that the content rating here is strictly PG-13, meaning bloody squibs are disappointingly few-and-far-between.
The film is co-written and directed by Robert Lorenz, who has served as both producer and assistant director on countless Clint Eastwood joints over the last 25 years, and also made his solo directorial debut with 2012’s Eastwood baseball drama Trouble with the Curve. If you can abide its beat-to-beat storytelling formula, complete with comically generic gangster villains scarcely worth mentioning, this is an entertainingly competent, above-average Neeson effort.
A lot of its success comes down to the material’s refusal to characterise Hanson as anything less than a broken down, over-the-hill guy who is clearly too old for this shit. With a slightly scruffy beard and cutting a lean figure, this is undoubtedly Neeson at his most grizzled, yet Lorenz’s script also has the good sense to hurl a few wryly witty one-liners the actor’s way, ensuring Jim is anything but a humourless hero.
Gladly, you don’t see much of Neeson effortlessly overpowering much younger men here, with his weapon of choice instead being a sniper rifle, immediately rendering Jim’s combat success against scores of anonymous cartel goons plausible enough.
But the film owes as much to its appealing lead actor as it does his two primary screen partners. Jacob Perez makes for a natural as his young road partner Miguel, with the two sharing some periodically moving banter, especially when spilling their guts about their respective losses. Every action star gets the Mercury Rising-type vehicle they deserve – that is, paired with an imperiled young target – and thankfully this is one of the less-contrived to come down the pike in recent times.
Beyond his pint-sized human screen partner, Neeson is also teamed with a gorgeous Collie named Jackson, who in addition to being an adorable companion for our hero even occasionally provides combat aid, tugging at the pant-legs of bad guys and providing the necessary distraction for Jim to get his edge back.
In the supporting human stakes, though, Katheryn Winnick is more or less wasted here as Jim’s step-daughter Sarah, who of course also happens to be a cop working in the area. Winnick does about as much with the role as an actor can, though the script could lose her character entirely and be no worse a movie.
But what is any western-spiced film without some visual eye candy? In that sense The Marksman absolutely has you covered, with DP Mark Patten milking the pure orange Arizona landscape for every drop it’s worth. Combined with Lorenz’s solid yet unmistakably workmanlike control of the picture, the spritely scenery ensures the film’s 108 minutes are never less than fleet-footed.
It is easy to imagine multiple versions of this film which were both vastly superior and much, much worse. It’s an undeniably familiar story the ending of which won’t surprise many, not to forget a cheap end-of-second-act twist, nor an over-earnest musical score from 24 composer Sean Callery, but it also maintains a pacy clip from start to finish and delivers the basic goods with acceptable aplomb inside of a reasonable runtime. Sometimes, that’s all you need.
The Marksman’s conventional genre indulgences are elevated by its middle-brow aspirations; some gorgeous Arizona scenery and a Neeson protagonist more keen to embrace – rather than disguise – the actor’s longevity.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.